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Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2016/2017
Unit value:
Taught in:
Full Year

An introductory study, for students with no prior knowledge of Arabic literature, of representative late nineteenth and twentieth-century prose and poetry. The course aims to cover the development of modern literature, and to give students some familiarity with major trends in contemporary literary theory. It thus provides essential preliminary training for other courses in which modern Arabic literature is studied.


Successful completion of Arabic 1 or equivalent standard.

The course is a compulsory second-year unit for BA Arabic, and an optional unit for BA Arabic and Islamic Studies. Either this course or Introduction to Classical Arabic Literature is compulsory for the second year of the combined honors BA Arabic and another subject. Students are expected to be able to read and understand modern Arabic texts and to consult reference material in Arabic. Otherwise, students will be trained in the various methods of close reading and critical analysis as well as in the understanding and application of literary terms and analytic tools.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Poetic and Prose genres in modern Arabic literature are distinct and varied, yet they share certain trajectories in their development. The selection of the texts studied in this course is informed by four major aims: first, to span the various stages of development of the literature; second, to familiarize the students with the work of major Arab writers from different countries and literary persuasions; third, to introduce them to different types of literary techniques, language styles and themes in the genre under study; and fourth, to survey the different instances of interaction between Arabic literature and Western literary and critical methods.

At the end of the course students will be familiar in general terms with the range of themes and techniques to be found in Modern and Contemporary Arabic literature and will have been introduced to some principal Arabic and Western critical works. The objective of the course is to introduce students to one of the richest and most rewarding phases of Arabic Literature, and to relate the processes of change and search for personal and cultural identity on the literary level to the projects of change in the political and social spheres. The ultimate aim is to sharpen students’ awareness of the significance of the literature to the understanding of vital cultural, social and political processes, and especially to the quest for modernity and modernization in Arab societies. This aim can only be achieved, however, by attending first to the peculiarities of voice and point of view, technique and literary mode and to the closely allied complexities of self-insight and self-presentation, as well as to the relation to history and tradition, which together incite the experience of modernity.


There will normally be one three-hour class weekly.

These three hours each week are devoted to close reading of texts, discussion of aspects of language, structure, technique, imagery, rhythm and some formal lecturing on the more general aspects of the subject, especially on the relation of literary discourses to the wider cultural, political and social contexts. Students’ participation is vital as they are expected to prepare texts in advance of lectures and to be able to provide initial impressions and insights and to discuss and substantiate them in class. Required readings and other relevant primary sources will be handed out in advance of the relevant unit or lecture. Other secondary and background sources are available in the SOAS library.

Scope and syllabus

Primary texts will vary from year to year, but a typical syllabus will consist of poems, essays, short stories, extracts from novels, and a sampling of drama.

Apart from introducing students to basic literary concepts and practices and to useful critical and analytic tools, course readings and discussions will be guided by the following major themes:

  1. European and Non-European Literary Influences on the Early Writers
  2. The Romantic Imagination and its Literary Manifestations
  3. Realism and Social Polarization and their Manifestations
  4. The Work of Pioneering and Major Writers
  5. The Change in Literary Sensibility and the Rise of Modernism
  6. The Rise of Women Writers and their Contribution to the Development of Modern Genres
  7. 1980-Present: Marginalization, Fragmentation and Postmodernism
  8. Proper Definition of Terms, Practices and Forms & the Question of Historical Development

Method of assessment

Two assessed essays of 2,500 words each (together 20% of the final mark), submitted the day the first class is held in week 1 of term 2 and 3. One three-hour written examination in May-June (80%), consisting of passages for analysis and comment and essays.

Suggested reading

  • Allen, Roger, An Introduction to Arabic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Allen Roger, The Arabic Novel: an Historical and Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995).
  • Ashour, Radwa, Ghazoul, Ferial J., and Reda-Mekdashi, Hasna (eds.), Arab Women Writers: a Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999 (Cairo/New York: American University in Cairo Press, 2008).
  • Badawi, M. M. (ed.), The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Modern Arabic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Badawi, M. M., A Critical Introduction to Modern Arabic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
  • Cachia, Pierre, An Overview of Modern Arabic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990).
    Hafez, Sabry, The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse (London: Saqi, 1993).
  • Hafez, Sabry, The Quest for Identities: the Development of the Modern Arabic Short Story (London: Saqi, 2007).
  • Jayyusi, Salma Khadra (ed.), Modern Arabic Poetry: an Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).
  • Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, and Allen, Roger (eds.), Modern Arabic Drama: an Anthology (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995).
  • Meisamy, Julie Scott, and Starkey, Paul, Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (London: Routledge, 2010).
  • Moosa, Matti, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1997).
  • Starkey, Paul, Modern Arabic Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006).